Retro Review: “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury

Weird Tales May 1944“The Lake” is a short story by Ray Bradbury, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“The Lake” is narrated by Harold, who as a twelve-year-old is spending one last day by the shores of Lake Michigan, the titular lake, with his mother. The next day, Harold will get on a train to move to California. It’s September, the beach is largely deserted and the hot dog stalls and merry-go-rounds on the boardwalk have already closed down.

The melancholy of the setting echoes Harold’s mood. For Harold is not just sad because he is moving away, but also because he lost something or rather someone important here at the shores of Lake Michigan. His classmate Tally, a girl Harold has been in love with since forever, drowned in the lake earlier that year and her body was never found.

Harold disentangles himself from his mother and ventures into the water, calling for Tally to come back. Finally, he builds half a sandcastle on the beach and calls out to Tally to come and build the other half, just like they used to do. But of course, Tally doesn’t come. Instead, the sandcastle is washed away by the waves.

The story now skips ahead ten years in two paragraphs, as Harold takes the train to California, grows up, goes to law school and marries a woman from Sacramento called Margaret. For their honeymoon, Margaret suggests visiting Harold’s old stomping grounds in Illinois.

By now, Harold has happily settled down in California and largely forgotten Illinois, but the train ride east brings back memories. Walking through his old hometown, he finds that he doesn’t recognise anybody, though some faces seem vaguely familiar, carrying echoes of old classmates.

Of course, Harold and Margaret also find themselves down by shores of Lake Michigan, walking along the beach on a September day much like the one when Harold left Illinois forever. Harold watches a life-guard boat moor at the quay, watches a life-guard carry out a bag containing a body. Full of foreboding, he tells Margaret to stay behind and walks over to the life-guard to ask what happened.

The life-guard tells him that they found the body of a little girl who has been dead a long time. The only reason the life-guard knows the dead body is a girl is because of the locket she had been wearing. The life-guard also says that no child drowned in the lake recently and that only one of the twelve children who drowned there since 1933 was never recovered. Harold already knows that the body has to be Tally, but asks to see it anyway. He also asks the life-guard where the body was found. “In the shallow water”, the life-guard says.

Harold walks over to the spot where the body was found and sees half a sandcastle on the beach, footprints leading to the castle and then back into the water. Harold finishes the sandcastle and realises that he will love Tally forever, even though he grew up and she will forever remain a child. He also wonders what to do about this woman called Margaret who’s waiting for him on the boardwalk. Though I do feel sorry for Margaret who after all didn’t know that she was marrying a man who was still in love with his dead childhood sweetheart.

The October Country by Ray Bradbury“The Lake” is a famous story that has been reprinted dozens of times. And rightfully so, because the story is utterly beautiful. I knew that I had read the story before, but I had forgotten how short it is, a mere four pages long. But Bradbury packs a lot into those four pages. You can almost see the beach, you can hear the seagulls, smell the hot dogs, feel the sand between your toes and the water lapping up to your legs. And you also feel the overwhelming sense of melancholy and loss that permeates this story.

Stylistically, Ray Bradbury was one of the best writers of the golden age and “The Lake” is a perfect example of his trademark poetic style. Much of the story consists of evocative descriptions of the shores of Lake Michigan. And it is certainly no coincidence that Bradbury was born in the town of Waukegan, Illinois, which lies on the shores of Lake Michigan, and later moved to California, just like his protagonist. A lot of Ray Bradbury’s stories feel autobiographical and “The Lake” is one of them. And if you do the math, you’ll notice that Bradbury was about the same age as his protagonist and first-person narrator Harold, when he wrote “The Lake”. Was there ever a childhood friend who drowned in Lake Michigan? I don’t know. But the evocative descriptions make the story feel very real.

Considering how description heavy this story is, it is interesting what Bradbury does not describe. For we do not get a single description of the dead body in the bag – Bradbury only tells us that Harold looked into the bag and looked away, for one look was enough. Harold also remarks upon how small Tally’s body, for while he grew up, she never did. Considering that Weird Tales was a horror magazine, Bradbury’s restraint in not giving us a description of the dead body is notable. But then stories in Weird Tales often kept their various horrors vague, the writers well aware that imagination can generate horrors worse than anything a writer can describe. And I guess we can all imagine what a body looks like after ten years in the water. Bradbury doesn’t need to tell us.

In one of my posts about last year’s Retro Hugo finalists, I noted that Ray Bradbury’s 1944 Retro Hugo finalist and eventual winner “R Is For Rocket” was the story which felt most timeless among the finalists, even though it included such vintage science fiction tropes as food pills and rockets with mighty fins. “The Lake” feels even more timeless than “R Is For Rocket”, simply because it doesn’t contain any overt science fiction tropes. Instead, it is a story about loss, grief and a September day on the shores of Lake Michigan. “The Lake” wouldn’t feel out of place in the (virtual) pages of a contemporary issue of Uncanny or Fireside or Tor.com, though instead of a train, Harold would probably take a plane these days.

A wonderful and haunting story.

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